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Healthy eating and environmental sustainability

Published on

01 March 2013

Angie Clonan, Division of Nutritional Sciences, School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham, UK

“In May 2012, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in the UK published its report on Sustainable Food concluding that Government must develop a joint strategy to change the UK’s unhealthy and environmentally damaging food system, as fears mount about global food security. The Committee strongly recommended that consumers needed more knowledge and information to make informed choices about food that is better for their health and the environment and reduces waste (1). There are clear tensions between healthy eating messages provided to the UK public and environmental sustainability, mainly in the consumption of meat, dairy foods and fish (2). Additionally the vast array of ‘sustainable’ labeling schemes add complexity to the purchasing context, making it difficult for even the most informed consumers to make ‘sustainable’ choices (3). As yet, the UK government does not provide consu-mers with any advice on sustainable food or indeed sustainable consumption of wider goods and services. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Sustain in the UK (4), the German Council for Sustainable Development (5) and Sweden’s National Food Administration (6), currently offer the most accessible form of guidance for anyone seeking to consume food in a more sustainable fashion.

For almost a decade, UK dietary guidance has heavily promoted the consumption of 5 fruits and vegetables per day, with no consideration being given to the origin, transport methods, or indeed packaging implications of this produce (7). While lower in environmental impact, evidence suggests that fruit and vegetable (inclu-ding potato) consumption accounts for around 2.5% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., carbon dioxide from fossil fuel and land use, as well as methane and nitrous oxide), with air freighted produce, unseasonal Mediterranean-style produce, prepared (trimmed or chopped) produce, and fragile or highly perishable produce as the major greenhouse gas contributors of the sector (8). Again, purchasing contexts require consideration, as research carried out in the UK summarized that most fruit and vegetables available through major UK retailers at best only partially met sustainable guidelines, and some retailers did not offer fruit or vegetables meeting any sustainability criteria (9). This presents a real challenge for UK consumers to make environmentally sustainable choices when buying fruit and vegetables in mainstream situations.

It is clear that consumption of fish and fish products has a considerable impact on human nutrition as well as the marine environment and the long term viability of fish stocks, yet tensions remain between dietary advice provided and environmental capabilities in this regard. UK dietary guidelines currently recommend consuming at least two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily (10), as regular fish consump-tion is associated with decreased risk of several health problems including cardiovascular disease and cancer. If every person in the UK population achieved the recommended fish intake, demand would increase on fish stocks in the EU and around the world which are already under pressure. Estimates indicate that over three-quarters of the world’s (11) and EU’s (12) fish stocks are currently either fully or over exploited. For consumers, balancing health motivations with concerns over sustainability can present something of a dilemma, particularly as very little guidance is available. Many UK consumers buy fish for health reasons indicating that the dietary advice has been heeded; however there appears to be less awareness regarding sustainability issues when purchasing fish, and the growth in aquaculture (farmed fish), while welcomed by some, is currently adding to the confusion for consumers. While UK consumer guidance for fish consumption has been recently updated to incorporate some information on sustainability, the main message for consu-mers to increase fish consumption remains unchanged. Recommendations still include several types of fish that the UK’s Marine Conservation Society (MCS) believe are most vulnerable to over-fishing and/or are fished using methods that damage the environment. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides certification via the use of its eco-label to communicate whether a fish or fish product is from a sustainable source (13).

Dietitians, nutritionists and policy makers need to work together to ensure that dietary guidelines go beyond consideration of current consumers to encompass the nutritional, environmental and resource needs of future generations. Issues such as local and seasonal food, meeting nutritional demands within a fixed budget, packaging and animal welfare have been shown to be important to consumers, and these should be utilized to communicate the need for behavior change in dietary consumption patterns.”

Based on: Angie Clonan and Michelle Holdsworth. The dilemma of healthy eating and environmental sustainability. Alpro Foundation. Health & Nutrition Newsletter 2012 no. 2. Published online December 2012.


  1. The Environmental Audit Committee, Sustainable Food. 2012. House of Commons, London.
  2. Sustainable Development Commission, Green, healthy and fair. 2008. London.
  3. Which? Making Sustainable Food Choices Easier. 2010.
  4. Sustain. Consumer Guide to Sustainable Food. 2009.http://www.sustainweb.org/pdf/SFG_Consumers_1pp.pdf.
  5. German Council for Sustainable Development. The Sustainable Shopping Basket. 2011.
  6. Swedish National Food Administration. The National Food Administration's environmentally effective food choices; Proposal notified to the EU, N.F. Administration, Editor. 2009. Sweden.
  7. Choices N. 5 A DAY: what counts? 2012. Directgov.
  8. Garnett T. Fruit and Vegetables and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Exploring the relationship. FCRN, Editor. 2006. Centre for Environmental Strategy; University of Surrey.
  9. Holdsworth M. et al. Availability of sustainable fruits and vegetables in UK supermarkets. 20th IUHPE World Conference on Health Promotion: Health, Equity and Sustainable Development. 2010. Geneva.
  10. Food Standards Agency. 2004. Oily fish advice: your questions answered.http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/faq/oilyfishfaq/.
  11. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. 2006. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, United Nations: Rome.
  12. Thurstan R. H. et al. The effects of industrial fishing on UK bottom trawl fisheries. Nature communications. 2010; 1:15.
  13. Marine Conservation Society. Fish Online: Fish to avoid. 2008. http://www.fishonline.org/advice/avoid/.

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